Sunday, 30 June 2013

Reflections on the (Possible) Revolution

On May 5th the state of Karnataka held elections to vote in a new state government. It was quite a significant affair with many street closures in the month long run up to election day to allow political rallies. Posters, and political slogans daubed on walls sprang up everywhere.  Cars with loud speakers patrolled residential areas exhorting people to vote and at least one bomb exploded in Bangalore.  Even worse, for three days around the vote sales of alcohol were banned across the state!

 In the event, as widely tipped, the ruling BJP party was kicked out of office and Congress, the traditional ruling party in this part of India, resumed power.

Participation in Indian politics is relatively high in international terms.  Turnout in the World’s Biggest Democracy is usually around 60% and is generally higher for state elections than for the distant national Parliament.  Tip O’Neill coined the phrase that ‘all politics is local’.  Well that is never truer anywhere than it is in India.  People here vote with the expectation that the winning party will make good promises on delivering local infrastructure projects: roads, schools and water supply.

I met several people who were passionately involved and very partisan.  The irony is that so few of the people I mix with socially seemed to care.  It was easy to get drivers or waiters to discuss the forthcoming election, but the professional classes and the urban middle class genuinely seemed to have little interest or involvement.

The reason is that the rich in this country largely opt out of politics.  They pay for private education and medical care, employ private security firms to police their gated compounds, and remain largely indifferent to corruption and inefficiency in state offices.  Consequently they see no reason to pay tax. India has a shockingly low tax base.  In December, India’s finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, announced that only about 36 million people filed income taxes last year. That’s 2.89 percent of the population. If it means that they have to drive their SUVs on rutted roads past piles of accumulated garbage and emaciated people dressed in rags sleeping on the verge, well so be it.

I do not profess any faith or religious beliefs.  But I think it is not a coincidence that Christianity teaches charity and responsibility for ones fellow man, and European politics pretty much across the continent boils down to various flavours of social democracy.  In the USA, where there is a tradition of philanthropic giving, they do it differently.  Hinduism by contrast is essentially fatalistic and focuses on personal behaviour and the self.  To my mind that attitude permeates much of Indian society and culture.

So what has any of this got to do with food or sustainability?  Those are after all the purported subjects of this blog.  Well yesterday, tucked away on the inside pages of the Times of India, I read a small article that said that the new Karnataka government was about to effect a change in policy to allow Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the state’s retail sector.  This is yet another step in the long march towards economic liberalisation begun in 1991.  However, many small producers and traders are deeply unhappy about the prospect of Karnataka’s retail industry being opened to foreign competition.

In the west the arguments for liberal economics are so dominant it seems strange to think that this could be such a contentious issue here.  So complete is our belief in free trade, deregulation, competition and the power of market forces that we forget that alternatives do exist.  Since the reforms were introduced foreign inwards investment in India has skyrocketed.  Annual GDP growth has accelerated from just 1¼ % in the three decades after Independence to today’s 7½ %.  The city where I am living, Bangalore, has become a global IT hub, and India sits proudly as a BRIC nation second only to China in the pace of economic development.

Yet, as elsewhere in the world, the fruits of economic development have not been shared equitably.  Rising prosperity has been accompanied by a massive growth in inequality.  There is a record number of super rich Indians but the lowest tiers of Indian society have been left behind.  The reforms have brought virtually no change in incomes or average consumption for people at the bottom of the pile.  Economic growth has not been translated into employment growth or a significant change in educational standards for the masses.  Basic nutrition remains a fundamental concern for millions of the poor.

I enjoy food shopping in Bangalore.  There are several small independent supermarkets where, by shopping around, I can buy pretty much everything I need.  They are not stylish and choice is limited. The expat telegraph buzzes with news that such and such a place has got a delivery of French Brie or Danish butter.  But most things are available if you know where to look.  Certainly it’s a lot better than China in that regard.

It is also quite chastening to take a stroll in to the local village, Nagenahalli, and see how the locals live.  I frequently visit a local green grocer.  At first, the presence of a white face caused some consternation, but now they are used to me.  For my part I have got over my fixation with perfectly formed vegetables and uniform, smooth skinned fruit.  Here you get produce just as nature creates it, in all shapes and sizes and with blemishes.  It doesn’t alter the taste one jot!   Potatoes, garlic, onions, chilies, capsicums, bitter gourd and okra are always available.  Cauliflowers, courgettes, aubergines, tomatoes, carrots and string beans are usually to be had.  After that? Well don’t hold your breath.  It’s not that other things aren’t available, but they come and go as they should.
Agricultural produce is locally grown and available when in season.  The mango season has just ended, but when they were available they were amazing.

Potentially FDI means that this time next year Nagenahalli could have a Wal-Mart, a Carrefour or a Tesco Express.  I will be able to push my trolley around in luxurious airconditioned aisles groaning with wondrous, foreign imported foods.  Perhaps this village will disappear under piles of superfluous packaging, local farmers will be driven out of business and my village shop will be demolished to make way for a hundred car parking lot.  Perhaps that’s progress.  No doubt there would be a tiny uptick in India’s GDP associated with the retail revolution in Nagenahalli.

Is it patronising and hypocritical of me to want to deny the pleasures of the first world to people here.  Why should they be denied the right to buy South African apples or Dutch lettuces?  And can anyone really hold back the tide of development anyway?

But here’s another irony.  The people who would benefit from a retail revolution are the same middle classes who eschewed the elections.  The poor people of Nagenahalli don’t want to buy taramasalata or Californian wines.  They don’t need loyalty cards or two-for-one offers on shampoo.  Most toiletries are sold here in single use sachets.  I bet, if anybody were to ask them, they just want jobs, a community and somewhere to sell their meager farm produce.  Now that would be worth voting for!

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Here Comes The Rain Again!

I think we may now definitively say that the Monsoons have arrived.  Frankly I’m a bit disappointed; I thought the arrival would be more dramatic. It’s true that for the first couple of months after I arrived here in Bangalore we experienced almost no rain whatsoever, whereas now the likelihood of rain is ever-present. But I expected the change to be more black and white.  In old books I’ve read it was normal for characters to recall the exact date the rains started in any given year.

In reality it has been getting progressively cooler, wetter and windier for some weeks.  Although locally it has been fashionable to state with some sense of anticipation that the rain falling outside was just a precursor, ‘you wait; the real thing is yet to come!’ The truth is the change in the weather has been a gradual transformation.

I believe down by the coast, or even in some northern cities it is possible to mark a specific day as the start of the Monsoon. Up here on the Deccan plateau our weather is more complicated.  Right now the prevailing winds come from the west and no doubt much of the rain falls on the Western Ghats, the range of mountains that run from Gujarat in the north to Kerala in the south and separate the interior from the coastal strip.

And that’s another thing.  I’ve seen tropical or sub-tropical rain systems in Africa, Singapore and China.  In Guilin in Southern China, where I spent most of last year, it was officially named “The year of two Aprils” on account of the heavy Spring rains which persisted through  May and June and even into July.  In one memorable typhoon in Hong Kong a few years back, I saw the city’s famous red taxis floating down the streets of Wan Chai on flash floods.  I know what heavy rain is.  Yet so far I’ve seen nothing here that would be unusual in an English summer.  Actually I quite enjoy it, but rather than the torrential downpours I was expecting, we have had several days of soft light drizzle.

The thing is the Monsoon is a big talking point in India.  Even among the urbane coffee set and expats that I have mainly met, it is a regular topic of conversation.  The rains will be late this year. No they will be on time but lighter than usual.  No this is going to be a normal year.  And so on.  When the western Monsoon did finally arrive in Kerala on the southwest coast, Saturday June 1st for those who are interested, the country’s press trumpeted it loudly. “Southwest Monsoon Arrives in Kerala” said The Hindu, “Monsoon Rains Hit Southern Kerala Coast: Weather Official” beamed the Times of India.  From there the rains will now advance progressively up the country to Delhi
It matters.  In fact it matters enormously to the people here and to the whole Indian economy.  For me it places a question mark over my weekly game of golf and means that I no longer need to sleep with the aircon on.  Mid day temperatures in Bangalore now hover around 25 degrees Celsius instead of the high thirties which was standard back in April. But for almost a billion people it is literally the difference between feast and famine.

Around 70% of India’s population depends directly or indirectly on farming.  Agriculture makes up 14.5% of the country’s GDP.  In global terms India is both one of the biggest producers and consumers of food.  Most farms are rain-fed and have no other form of irrigation, yet 75% of the annual rainfall will come between June and September.  A weak monsoon or even drought damages the rural economy, affecting the country’s bottom line growth figures; it causes suffering among agricultural communities and can lead to civil unrest and political turbulence at national level.

No wonder then that so much national energy is spent on trying to mitigate the effects of the Monsoon.  The government’s Indian Council of Agricultural Research, including its facility here in Bangalore, puts a lot of effort into developing drought resistant strains of staple crops.  The Indian Meteorological Department is constantly tasked with developing better forecasting tools and producing early warning systems for droughts, which are now expected to occur at roughly five yearly intervals. No doubt much could also be done to conserve what precious supply of water exists.

In the long run however India needs to reduce its dependency on this annual event which is both unpredictable and outside its control.  India is proud of its status as a BRIC nation, and Indians are fond of announcing that this is the First World.  Yet surely, whatever development means it has to imply that a country has advanced to a level where political, social and economic success are not left to the caprice of the weather?

[P.S. Since I published this post almost 1,000 people have been killed in some of the worst flooding North India has experienced in years.  In Bangalore however, we are still waiting for some proper rain.]